In just a few short days of fundraising and community action, things are starting to look up for 99-year-old Forsyth County veteran Marian Rytkonen.
Over the past weekend, nearly 200 people from the Forsyth County community and beyond donated more than $9,000 to Rytkonen and her family to help the veteran stay in her nursing home while she waits for the Department of Veterans Services (DVS) to release the benefits she needs.
After having her life savings stolen from her by a caretaker, Rytkonen moved to Forsyth County in October 2018 to be closer to her son, local firefighter Bob Kaley.
Ever since she and her family say they have faced potential financial ruin and homelessness as they struggled through the process of receiving assisted living benefits from the federal government.
On Sunday, Kaley said that the family has been completely blown away by the community’s generosity and response. He said that for the first time in a long time, his mom is happy and not worried about the future.
“The three of us are completely overwhelmed. My phone has not stopped ringing," Kaley said. "I never figured it would go like this, I never pictured anything like this could happen and my mom is sitting here, smiling at me and that's the first time I've seen her smile in a while, over not having to worry about the frustration we've had and felt."
After the Forsyth County News published a story about Rytkonen’s dire financial situation on Saturday, Sen. Greg Dolezal launched a fundraising page on Facebook to help raise money for Rytkonen and the Shadow Warrior Foundation, a local non-profit organization currently helping the veteran and her family.
Dolezal said that he was inspired by Rytkonen’s story and when they went live with the fundraiser, they were hoping that the community could raise about $3,000.
But in just a few hours donations from the community surpassed $7,000 and kept on rising, he said.
"I'm never surprised when we put an opportunity for generosity in front of Forsyth County at how they respond. This was no exception," Dolezal said. "I think that the generosity is a natural response to gratitude, for all of us [are] living in a world that is the way that it is because of her generation and what they've done for us.”
Dolezal said that the money raised will be used to pay Rytkonen’s rent through September. Whatever is left over will go to help the Shadow Warrior Foundation and the work they do for other veterans in the community.
In addition to the fundraising, family and friends say that numerous elected officials are now involved in Rytkonen’s case to make sure that her application for assisted living benefits is expedited by the DVS.
On Monday, Shadow Warrior Foundation Director Jared Clark said that even though it may still take some time to have Rytkonen’s application with DVS to be accepted, the support they have received from local and state government officials has been encouraging.
"Things are looking good right now, so the support that we have had from the government officials in our area has been astounding," Clark said. "It's been really good to see."
In a statement to the Forsyth County News, Department of Veterans Services spokesman George Canavaggio said that Rytkonen’s claim is currently in the work queue and has been marked to be “flash” expedited due to Rytkonen’s circumstances.
Canavaggio said that typically veterans wait between six and 12 months while their pension claim is processed, but the process can be expedited for factors such as age, homelessness, financial hardship or medical status.
Clark said that while news of Rytkonen’s case being expedited is heartening, they believe that her situation is indicative of a larger problem with the system itself.
"There's no reason why our veterans should ever have to have connections to top government officials to get their basic benefits," he said. "They have already fought and suffered in many ways that civilians would never understand, and these are the basic things that they fought for."
But with these new government contacts, Clark said that the Shadow Warrior Foundation now has a network of people to call on if another situation with a veteran should arise.
"Marian kept asking the last time we met up with her how she could give back. This is how she's giving back – her story has led to these connections for our foundation." he said.